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Dark Side Of The American Dream Essay

, Research Paper

Children learn in school about famous Americans like George Washington,

Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King who fought to make this the land of

freedom, opportunity, and equality for all. They learn about famous documents

like the Declaration of Independence which declares that All Men are created

equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that

among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. One of the most

difficult things about growing up as a member of a minority group within the

United States, is learning that America is not the perfect portrait of equality,

opportunity, and freedom that some make it out to be.

In Toni Cade Bambara s short story, The Lesson, Bambara shows one

womens attempt to show a group of poor black kids the inequalities that exisist

within our so called equal society. In the story, set in the time period immediately

following World War II, a group of black children are taken on a field trip to an

upscale part of New York City — namely, Fifth Avenue, an exclusive and

expensive shopping district frequented primarily by whites. The guide of the field

trip is an intelligent young black woman with a college degree named Miss Moore.

Miss Moore lives near the children and takes responsibility in the education of the


On the trip Miss Moore takes the children to the very famous toy store

F.A.O. Schwartz. There the children are exposed to rooms full of toys which cost

more than their parents annual incomes, and to all the trappings of luxury and

afluence that they never knew existed. After entering the store the stories narrator,

a street-smart girl named Sylvia, begins to wonder what Miss Moores goal is in

bringing the children to a toy store. Miss Moore intends to do way more than

window shopping. In fact Miss Moores intentions go way beyond that. She has

brought the children to the store to teach them a lesson.

She introduces the topic of her lesson by asking the children if they know

what real money is; Sylvia wonders sarcastically if Miss Moore thinks it s only

poker chips or monopoly papers we lay on the grocer (Bambara 350). This

shows that Sylvia and her friends think of money as a necessary component of

eking out a living; it is a consumable for them, consumed on plain food which is

cooked and eaten, fuel which is burned, clothes which are worn out, a roof over

their heads which becomes incresingly decrepit with each passing year.

Miss Moore intends to show the children that real money is the sustaining

force behind luxury. Real money pays for fur coats for white women to wear in

August, collectable model sailboats that cost $1,195, $480 paperweights which do

nothing except decorate desks, and a $35 tricky clown which does somersaults

on a bar. Sylvia points out that Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for

Junior and Gretchen s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go

visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent

and the piano bill too (Bambara 354). Rich people look at this money differently

and spend it on toys. At this point it really starts to sink into Sylvia and she begins

to understand Miss Moore s intentions of bringing the children to the store. Sylvia

asks the question Who are these people that spend that much for performing

clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live

and how come we ain t in on it (Bambara 354) This angers her becauses she

knows that these people are nearly all white.

Interestingly, however, not all the children react to the impact of Miss

Moore s lesson in the same way. For example, Sugar s answer that this is not

much of a democracy….Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at

the dough, (Bambara 354) is certainly correct but to facile. Sugar only partly

understands what Miss Moore is trying to get the children to realize. The trip

through the store really had no affect on Sugar. She is not confused and angered

like Sylvia because Sylvia understands the lesson and the implications of it. The

practical Rosie Giraffe observes that Parents silly to buy something like that

[sailboat] just to get all broke up (Bambara 352). The prissy Mercedes does not

perceive the fact that no matter how much birthday money she saves up, she will

never be able to buy anything at F.A.O. Schwartz. However, Miss Moore s

lesson is of such gargantuan proportions that Sylvia is overwhelmed by its

implications; she has to escape from the group to think this day through

This shows that Sylvia understands the implications of Miss Moore s lesson.

The lesson has to do with the nature of the relationship of money to class.

There is something wrong with a society in which one class can spend $1000 for

toy sailboats while another class goes hungry. There is something wrong with a

society in which one s ability to shop at stores like F.A.O. Schwartz is a given,

while the children of Sylvia s class can only covet.

The Promise of the American Dream is that any enterprising person can

break the ceiling of poverty and come out on Fifth Avenue. This idea is so

hallowed in our country s belief system that when Sylvia first walks into the store

she feels another emotion often connected with church–shame. She is ashamed to

walk into the store because her inability to buy makes her unworthy. Bambara

uses this to expose the dark underbelly of the one sided American Dream. Sylvia

leaves the store filled with conflicting emotions: shock, shame, frustration, anger:

but also desire. If the last line holds true Ain t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin

(Bambara 354)– it is desire which will gain the ascendancy. Bambara uses the

story to make a point. This point is Miss Moores lesson which is intended to

instill not only awareness of how the other half lives, but anger at the fact that

black people in America do not tend to live this way: and a passion to do

something about it.