Themes and Meanings
Toni Cade Bambara does not specify what Sylvia plans to do with her newfound insight into social and economic inequality, but Sylvia is clearly angry and uneasy. Rather than spend the money on food treats as Sugar wants, Sylvia wants to ponder the lesson that she pretends not to learn, that disadvantaged groups need to think about the inequitable distribution of wealth in the United States. Sylvia knows that Miss Moore hopes that poor people will wake up and demand their fair share of economic resources, and Sylvia’s vow at the end of the story suggests that she is determined eventually to have more money than is typical of the adults in her slum neighborhood.
Poverty and Wealth
The children in ‘‘The Lesson’’ all come from poor families. They live in apartment buildings where drunks live in the hallways that reek of urine; they live in what Miss Moore terms the "slums." The children's families, however, exhibit somewhat varying degrees of monetary security. Mercedes, for instance, has a desk at home with a box of stationery on it—gifts from her godmother—while Flyboy claims he does not even have a home.
The children, however, surely understand the value of money, and they easily comprehend that the amount of money charged for the toys at F. A. O. Schwarz is astronomical. They compare the handcrafted fiberglass sailboat, which costs $1,195, to the ones they make from a kit, which cost about 50 cents. Sylvia further thinks about what her family could buy with the $35 a clown costs: bunk beds, a family visit to Grandaddy out in the country, even the rent, and the piano bills. The disparity between the way the rich people live and the way Sylvia and her neighbors live is the lesson that Miss Moore wants to impart.
The children internalize this lesson in different ways. Sugar questions whether a nation in which
some people have so much but others have so little is truly a democracy. Sylvia grows angry at the disparity that she sees, and she also recognizes the potential showiness of wealth, as represented by the woman who wears a fur coat despite the hot weather. Mercedes, in contrast, aspires more to be like the white people who spend so much money on toys.
The poverty in which the children live is further emphasized by Sylvia's constant attention to money and what she can use it to buy. Even before the group arrives at the toy store, she acknowledges what she uses money for, such as the grocer, presumably to buy groceries for the family. Barbeque, which she suggests purchasing with Miss Moore's cab fare, is a luxury, as is the chocolate layer cake and the movie tickets and junk food on which Sugar suggests they spend the remaining money.
Although race is hardly specifically mentioned, it is the undercurrent of the story. That race is not made a point is not surprising; in Sylvia's world, everyone is African American. The only person who inhabits the exterior is Miss Moore, who actually is ‘‘black as hell.’’ Miss Moore's otherness stems not from race, but from the way she is different from the African Americans who predominate in the neighborhood. She has a college education, she wears her hair in its natural curls instead of straightening it, as many African-American women of the era did, and she insists on being called by her last name.
Two important ideas—that wealth and race are intrinsically linked and that white people and African-American people are different—are revealed in one brief sentence: when Sylvia sees a woman wearing a fur coat even though it is summer, she says ‘‘White folks crazy.’’ Skin color is mentioned only a few other times, when Sylvia relates that Flyboy...
(The entire section is 971 words.)