In Bambara’s “The Lesson,” Sylvia and her friends seem to understand the objects from F. A. O. Schwarz in terms of their “use value,” not in terms of “commodification.” With this in mind, discuss how the story’s representation of “conspicuous consumption” criticizes class oppression. How does Miss Moore figure in this criticism? Use two secondary sources that focus on the story itself.

The story criticizes class oppression by portraying the absurdity and injustice of conspicuous consumption. Miss Moore figures into this criticism by taking Sylvia and the other children to F. A. O. Schwarz and helping them to see that toys like the sailboat are expensive not because of their use value, but because they are commodities. Through this field trip, she hopes to make the students conscious of their own oppression by introducing them to the wealth gap.

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A good example of the process you are describing is when the children spot the sailboat that costs nearly twelve hundred dollars. The narrator, Sylvia, is "stunned" and reacts to this object with anger. She is shocked that anyone would spend so much money for such a toy when it is possible to "buy a sailboat at Pop's" with all the requisite supplies for fifty cents. She is considering the toy sailboat's use value as a toy only; the idea that a person would spend so much money on a toy sailboat is baffling to her when a person could spend so much less on a different toy sailboat and, either way, that person would have a toy sailboat to play with.

Sylvia and the other children do not really understand that the expensive toy sailboat is a commodity that has more value attached to it than just its use value. However, the fact that the expensive toy sailboat "pisses [her] off" suggests that she is beginning to understand the lesson after all. Of Miss Moore, Sylvia says, "she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what." When she invites the children to enter the store, she doesn't lead the way, because, it seems, she wants them to feel the discomfort of the clash between their own social status and those who engage in conspicuous consumption, the acquisition of luxuries in an effort to elevate one's prestige.

They do feel it, and, for Sylvia, that feeling of shame erupts in more anger. She considers a thirty-five dollar clown and thinks, "Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?" Miss Moore does not tell the children what to think but, instead, allows them to figure this out for themselves—that there is a fundamental inequity in the world between people who need to spend thirty-five dollars on food or basic living necessities and people who can spend thirty-five dollars on a toy.

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