“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is told by a young

“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is told by a young, black girl named Sylvia who is growing up in the slums of Harlem which seems to be around the1960’s . The story is about a trip initiated by a well-educated woman named Miss Moore who has taken it upon herself to expose the unappreciative children of the neighborhood to the world outside of their oppressed community. Miss Moore arranges a trip for Sylvia, Sugar, which is her cousin, and six other children: Q.T., Rosie Giraffe, Mercedes, Big Butt, Junebug, and Flyboy. The destination is the F.A.O. Schwarz Toy Store in Manhattan, where the toys aimed at a white market are extremely expensive. Some cost more than the children’s household yearly incomes. The children contemplate the extremely high prices. They speculate about what could justify such an outrageous cost, when their own toy sailboats cost less than a dollar. Sylvia and Sugar get a weird feeling when they are in the store; a feeling that they didn’t belong there because the place felt too holy. Miss Moore uses the trip to demonstrate how an unjust economic and social system creates unfair access to money and resources for black Americans. The lesson on economic inequality is spread upon the children to open themselves up to the education offered to them by the well-intended Miss Moore. At the end, Sylvia seeks solitude to contemplate the events of the day. In the short story “The Lesson” Bambara showcases economic oppression by incorporating Marxist Theory and race through symbols, narrative point of tone, and the setting.
Symbols play an important role in the meaning and depth in this story and contribute to the main themes of economic oppression and class disparity. Bambara uses material goods such as a paperweight and sailboats in order for the importance of money to relate to education and social freedom. This use of items plays into the setting based on children, and the fact that youngsters grasp concepts better when they are presented visually. The paperweight, an object used on desks to keep papers in place, is used to symbolize the force oppressing the African-American community, pertaining to the lack of education that keeps them from achieving their full potential. The paperweight allows for the realization that the lack of education in the children’s lives plays into their social status when Flyboy comments, “I don’t even have a desk.” We realize that education is not a big part of the children’s lives, and this concept of holding valuable items down with a weight is difficult for them to understand because their lives lack anything of economic value. The sailboat was a clever way for Bambara to incorporate a childhood standard of having a special toy that gives us the power to use our imagination. Some children fantasize that the toy can take them to faraway places, away from reality and gives us our wanted freedom. For every child this fantasy is different, but for the kids in the story, their dreams seems to be based on money and a life more rewarding than the one they are living. Miss Moore is trying to help teach kids through using these symbols that all the wonders at F.A.O. Schwartz are all within their reach, but to be able to ever have such luxuries, one must work hard and overcome social obstacles that stand in the way.
The narrator in “The Lesson” is a young girl named Sylvia who tells the story in first person. Through her we get a picture of the difficulties experienced from growing up in a poor urban area where the gaps in social classes and quality of living are so evident. Sylvia is an intelligent girl, but more street smart than book smart. Her experience outweighs her education and at the time when the story takes place she doesn’t seem to have any desire of ever leaving the slums. As we are exposed to more of Sylvia’s personality throughout the story, it becomes clear that the story is told in two different tones. The first tone is one of a child who is still growing, learning and experiencing. The second tone is different but not greatly. The use of vulgar language remains consistent, but the level of intelligence seems to elevate. This is demonstrated when Sylvia says, “What’s there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame.” By saying this, she is showing she has more life experience and understands the feeling of shame and what causes it. We also get the impression that the story is being told by Sylvia as an adult, looking back on the scene. Sylvia’s different tones, and her use of voice play an important role in adding to the lesson that is drawn from the story.
The setting in “The Lesson” is what really creates the atmosphere for the story, and it allows us to understand what issues the children are dealing with. Basically, Bambara is showing that it isn’t easy to grow up a poor kid in Harlem. The story takes place right after the civil rights movement, in a time when African-Americans were still struggling to find their place in society. They were trying to get their own piece of the American pie, while having to deal with racism and inequality. The setting of the slum area of Harlem helps us realize how unevenly the pie is split up between members of society. As close as Harlem is to Manhattan, they are worlds apart in terms of social class and wealth. The lesson that the children take out of the field trip with Miss Moore directly related to the fact that these children have been raised less fortunately than some and to get out of oppression and poverty, they will have to work. The children realize the value of money and how unfair it is that there is so much wealth in Manhattan and in Harlem there is extreme poverty. The children learn that social gaps are very wide and by leaving the slum area, they come to see that in comparison to Manhattan, they are all receiving a small slice of the American pie. Miss Moore and the Manhattan trip help the children realize that poverty is not found everywhere and that education can give them the power to boost up their status.