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Life in Harlem in the 1970s
Life in Harlem in the early 1970s was difficult, characterized by poverty, ignorance, little or no education, and low self-esteem. The inhabitants of this part of New York were predominantly Blacks. This research discusses the life of the people who lived in Harlem. The research bases its arguments on the writings by Toni Cade Bambara. For the purposes of this research, the short story ‘The Lesson’ provides the proof of what life was like in Harlem in the period in question. Most of the Harlemites mentioned in the story display a high level of ignorance, poverty, lack education, and have low esteem. The parents of children in the area do not actively raise their children while the children show case high levels of consumerism. These are the key elements that characterize life in Harlem in the 1970s. This research looks into the key points mentioned and how they affect life in Harlem. The research uses quotes from the short story to support the arguments raised. The characters in the story provide different perspectives of life in Harlem. While some of the characters enjoy a relatively comfortable life, most of the characters are found to live lives full of difficulty. This research helps one understand circumstances that have led to the life standards of Harlemites.
Life in Harlem in the 1970s is highly characterised by ignorance on the part of its residence. According to Cartwright, Sylvia states that “Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish” (23). This shows ignorance and the lack of enlightenment of Harlemites. The residents of Harlem are profoundly surprised by the character of a new resident who is educated. Miss Moore, as the residents call her, is an educated woman who takes it upon herself to educate the children of her neighborhood. This proves that the life of people in Harlem is particularly full of ignorance, as the people do not care whether they are educated or not. Miss Moore decides to take the children on a short trip to the F.A.O Schwartz for a lesson in life. However, the fact that most of the children are not enthusiastic about the trip shows that they do not want to learn anything new. The lack of the urge to learn something new is a key pointer to the ignorance on the part of Harlemites. It also shows that most of the residents of Harlem have accepted their life standards. If the residents were curious about events outside their social bubble, most of their circumstances would change.
The financial gap between Blacks and Whites is extreme, which shows that the residents in Harlem are extremely poor. Most of the residents of Harlem are Blacks. In the short story “The lesson,” Bambara shares of the poverty among the Black in Harlem:
Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Grand-daddy Nelson in the country. (Wright 79)
The thirty-five dollars mentioned herein refers to the amount one would have to pay to obtain the services of a clown. To the children, this amount can help them finance several of their family bills. The contrast here is that the individuals who are found to afford such services do so for their own enjoyment. Most of the blacks in Harlem would have to work for a long time to afford such services. The financial gap between blacks and Whites is expounded when the children see the price tags of the toys in the shop. This shows that life in Harlem is highly different for individuals based on their colour. Blacks can hardly afford a living while Whites are buying very expensive toys for their children. This can be attributed to the poor education imparted on the Blacks in Harlem.
Life in Harlem is also characterised by little or no education. The individuals who are educated in this society rarely obtain a higher education. Goodwin quotes Bambara’s ‘The lesson’, stating, “She’d been to college,” (129). The way that the characters in the short story are awed by Miss Moore’s level of education shows their own lack of education. Due to factors such as poverty, ignorance, and lack of opportunity has resulted in little education for the residents of Harlem. The short story epitomizes this fact by stating that Fly Boy uses any chance he gets to fleece White children in his school. Instead of focussing on his education, the character maintains a habit of hustling his classmates. The young boy always gets his way by playing the role of a homeless individual. This quality has a ripple effect on many other children in Harlem. Instead of finding means to educate themselves, they are continually finding ways to avoid opportunities to learn new things. They would rather be on the streets enjoying themselves. Life in Harlem without education creates a vicious cycle of poverty. The lack of information among the people in Harlem ensures that they are robbed off their power.
Life in Harlem in the 1970s is also characterised by the lack of confidence and a low self-esteem. The characters in the short story exhibit the lack of confidence when accessing the F.A.O Schwartz. When the children are about to enter the shop, they hesitate. “But somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door, so I step away from Sugar to lead,” (Heller 283). The young girl, Sylvia, finds this odd. She knows that she is confident in tackling any other problem in her life. This is particularly the case for many other residents in Harlem. They find it hard to do anything that is against the status quo. Aunt Gretchen is also a good example of the way the residents are of low self-esteem. She agrees to everything her family members decide. She does this so that she can fit in the society. Miss More identifies this fact and decides to enlighten the children. However, the children are reluctant to participate in the new lessons she tries to impart on them. Life in Harlem in this period is highly affected by a low self-esteem among the people. Because of this, the people in Harlem rarely realize that they have rights.
Life for children in Harlem in the early 70s can be characterized by poor parenting. Sylvia states that she is being raised by her aunt. This is all while her real parents are living elsewhere and having a good time. Therefore, it is correct to infer that the children are not provided with the correct parental guidance they require. This is evident in the children’s behavior. Most of the children are speaking vulgar language. They do not have the drive to seek the skills and mentality to improve their situation in life. Poor parenting is also evident in the fact they gossip right in front of their own children. This makes the children have even less respect for Miss more. This is particularly after the parents display their discomfort and disgust at the fact that Miss Moore does not go to church. Because of poor parenting, Children in Harlem find themselves trying everything to fend for themselves (Graves 215). Some children will go as far as stealing from each other. This is so that they can buy themselves some of the most basic things. Other children have become cunning and are always looking for ways to take advantage of other people. Without proper parenting, the generation of children raised in Harlem at this period will grow into social misfits.
The life of Harlemites in this period is also characterized by consumerism. Most of the characters in the short story ‘The Lesson’ are always thinking of how to spend their money. Instead of identifying ways to alleviate their financial situation, the characters are always thinking of visiting the barbecue. One such instance is made evident when Sylvia wants to ask the children to jump from the moving cab. This is so that they can spend the cab fare for their own needs. When this fails, Sylvia decides to deny the cab driver his tip. She does this knowing that she wants to use the money to buy food. The fact that most of the people in Harlem are poor shows one that they need to reduce their consumption behaviors. This would help the residents in improving their education. It would also help in reducing their problems with regards to surviving in Harlem. However, most of the residents shun education. This results in a vicious cycle of poverty, misinformation, and consumerism. However, some of the children have the hope for a better life. This is the reason why Miss More is trying hard to change their mentality. One of the children, Mercedes, wants to improve her financial status and have the capacity to purchase the toys she saw at the F.A.O Schwartz. Such a mentality would push the people of Harlem to improve their lives.
This research has found that life in Harlem in the early 70s was full of difficulties for the Blacks. The main reason for the difficulties faced by these people includes poverty, lack of education, low self-esteem, and poor financial habits. The short story ‘The Lesson’ provides one with an understanding of the issues faced by the people in Harlem. One of the main things one can point out is the poor compensation to Blacks for work done. Because of low income, the residents lack the necessary tools to alleviate their lives and that of their children. Poor parenting results in children who lack the correct behaviors among themselves. The children are also found to disrespect their seniors. The financial gap between Blacks and Whites shows just how most of the residents cannot afford most of the luxuries accorded to Whites. Therefore, it is important to educate and enlighten the children of Harlem. This would have ensured that the future generations stand a better chance to improve their social status.
Cartwright, Jerome. “Bambara’s THE LESSON.” Explicator 47.3 (1989): 61. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
Graves, Roy Neil. “Bambara’s The Lesson.” Explicator 66.4 (2008): 214-217. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
Goodwin, John. “Márquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings and Bambara’s The Lesson.” Explicator 64.2 (2006): 128-130. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
Heller, Janet Ruth. “Toni Cade Bambara’s Use Of African American Vernacular English In “The Lesson.” Style 37.3 (2003): 279-293. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
Wright, Katy M. “The Role Of Dialect Representation In Speaking From The Margins: “The Lesson” Of Toni Cade Bambara.” Style 42.1 (2008): 73-83. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
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