In "Karl Marx terms," what do the children learn about the political economy of New York City, circa 1972, in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Karl Marx was a German-born "historian and socialist," among other things. Marx focused on the "exploitation of the worker" (the lower classes) and "class struggles." Capitalism was at the center of Marx's social concerns. Capitalism is an economic system based on competition in a "free market." Ownership of goods is either private or corporate, and deals with investment, production and distribution.

Capitalism is:

...based on the relationships between the capitalists, the consumers, and the laborers.

What seems most significant is that the working class began many years ago to no longer work for themselves and their own profit, but to work for others who were then able to amass large fortunes. This money was controlled by a small minority within the economy. Marx was concerned that the working class was not rewarded by their work but controlled by others.

This is clearly seen in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson," a short story where a young girl named Sylvia learns important lessons about the distribution of power and wealth when a woman in their neighborhood (Miss Moore) takes the children on a "field trip" to F.A.O. Schwartz, a toy store that caters to the very rich. For children living in the inner-city, the toys are beyond their imaginings, as are the prices. And the reader, along with Sylvia, finds that there is something very wrong in a world where families struggle to buy beds, food and clothing for their children, while others spend a thousand dollars on—for instance—a toy sailboat.

"Will you look at this sailboat, please," say Flyboy, cuttin her off and pointin to the thing like it was his..."Handcrafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred ninety-five dollars." ...

"Must be rich people shop here," say Q.T.

The very essence of such a place brings about startling responses from the children as they prepare to enter the story. Sylvia notes:

So me and Sugar turn the corner to where the entrance is, but when we get there I kinda hang back. Not that I'm scared...But I feel funny, shame...somehow I can't seem to get hold of the door, so I step away from Sugar to lead. But she hangs back too.

The visit to the toy story gives Sylvia a great deal to think about, and she puts it into perspective as she imagines owning a $35 clown she saw that did somersaults on a bar.

"You wanna who that costs what?" [my mother would] say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in my head. Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen's boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Grandaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toy sailboats?

As Sylvia thinks about these things, she becomes aware for the first time of the significantly large gap between the world she lives in and that of those who control the wealth in this country, not only in 1972, but also today. It is this distinction that Marx was so aware of.

Marx believed that ultimately, this separation between the "haves" and the "have-nots" would lead to rebellion. Ultimately, this rebellion was realized by the Civil Rights Movement, and opportunities made available for everyone to go to college and earn a "larger piece of the pie."

Additional Sources:

Read the study guide:
The Lesson

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