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As wealth inequality reached its zenith at the beginning of the 20th century, Marxist concepts such as social injustice and economic inequality became a major subject of discussion in western literature. With the death of Karl Marx in 1883 and the spread of Communism to Russia in 1914, literature became an important front for socialist writers looking to spread their ideas. This is especially true in the United States, where centuries of black oppression had created extreme wealth inequality between white and black Americans. In Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” the character of Ms. Moore reveals to a group of black children the level of disparity between their lives and those of the white upper classes. As the story develops, a group of children undergo a process socialist awakening as they are made class consciousness by the vulgar extravagances of the upper classes. “The Lesson” serves as a metaphor for the awakening of the ignorant worker class into the socialist revolutionary movement, as they are confronted with the harsh reality of their suffering created by the oppressive bourgeois class.
Before being able to understand the revolutionary and classist undertones in “The Lesson,” we must have a solid understanding of Marxist ideas as promoted in Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. According to Marx, the main motivation behind all historical development is the exploitation of one class by another as the result of competition over resources (K. Marx and F. Engels). Class distinctions are defined by who creates the means of production of society and who provides labor. The upper classes are made up of the bourgeois, who are the wealthy capitalists who own the means of production. The lower classes are made up of the proletariat, the working class who provide labor for the bourgeois class. In order to accumulate wealth the Bourgeois must extract more than their fair share of the labor of the proletariat (K. Marx and F. Engels). Once the lower classes become aware of the extravagant living of the upper classes, a revolution begins to foment. This process is called the awakening of class consciousness (K. Marx and F. Engels). Bambara uses this concept of awakening class consciousness in her short story to depict the oppression of black Americans at the hand of the white bourgeois.
Ms. Moore’s trip to FAO Schwarz is meant by Bambara to be metaphorical for the class consciousness experienced by those in the working class when confronted by the opulence of the bourgeoisie. The children in the story have all grown up poor, and have little idea of the excesses that exist in the world. When confronted with the fact that they are poor and live in the slums, Sylvia responds, “I don’t feature” (Bambara). They simply do not know or understand anything else. Ms. Moore then takes the children on a field trip to have them witness firsthand the injustice of their living situation. Along the way, the children take part in underclass behavior such as stealing tips from a cab driver. This action is meant to show how an non-unified underclass undermines itself when it doesn’t work together to promote common interests; after all, Sylvia explains, “he don’t need it bad as I do.” The children are indifferent to their living situation, but this indifference changes as soon as they arrive at the wealthy upper-class division of New York City.
At this point in the story, Bambara begins to introduce the concept of class consciousness. The children become aware that these white people do not lead lives similar to theirs. Sylvia comments, “Everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is. White folks crazy.” It is here that the children are awakened to the class inequality that they suffer from. At FAO Schwarz, toy sail boats are sold for $1,000, and in a department store paper weights cost $480. Sugar realizes that the cost of one toy costs as much as it does to feed a family of 6 or 7 for an entire year, prompting her to say, “That this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?” The children then begin to realize that they are poor. Sylvia herself becomes uneasy with these discoveries and tries to push the thoughts away, feeling a “funny shame” (Bambara).
As the story reaches its climax, Sylvia becomes aware of the vast wealth inequalities present in Harlem and becomes an image of the revolutionary socialist. As Sugar begins to run her finger over the expensive sailboat, Sylvia begins to be filled with rage at the economic oppression perpetrated by the upper classes. She thinks to herself, “I’m jealous (at Sugar) and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth.” For the first time she realizes that she is a part of the underclass, and she becomes fully awakened to class conscious for the first time. After they leave the department store, Ms. Moore lectures the children on how they must “demand their share of the pie,” a metaphorical call for revolution. In her anger, Sylvia grabs Sugar and runs off to spend the money she kept from the taxi man’s tip, thinking, “But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (Bambara). At the conclusion of the story she is finally class conscious, and is filled with the righteous indignation of a socialist revolutionary.
Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” is a beautifully written exploration of the development of class consciousness and the awakening of the socialist revolutionary. The children represent the ignorant proletariat class members who fight between themselves for scraps because they do not know the source of their own suffering. It is not until they are exposed to the vulgar opulence of the bourgeois class that they become aware of their plight. The realization that a single toy sailboat sold in a toy store costs enough to feed a family of seven for an entire year opens Sylvia’s eyes to the extreme wealth inequality she suffers under. Once this realization is made, Sylvia becomes the proto-revolutionary socialist. She’s full of righteous indignation and promises to never be taken down by the system. When understood through the lens of Marx, Bambara’s work is indeed a revolutionary piece of literature.
Bambara, Toni Cade. The Lesson. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
K. Marx and F. Engels. German Ideology, with an introduction by R. Pascal, New York, International Publishers, Inc., 1939.
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