Four Dollar Democracy

Imagine, if you will, a nation divided by race and dominated by the wealthy upper-crust of society. That’s not very hard, you live in it. Now imagine exploring it from the eyes of a child. That’s Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson.”

Especially if you’re white, you probably remember a specific set of doctrines learned from your childhood. The United States is a democracy, money comes from hard work, and poverty is the product of laziness. If you didn’t learn it in the classroom, you learned it in the national anthem, in gated neighborhoods where the roads don’t run straight, and in hands holding cardboard signs by highway exits. This is normal. You shouldn’t be angry. Just keep moving. Stay in your place.

The field trip that Ms. Moore leads refutes this by crossing the usually unspoken boundaries. She wants the kids to be angry, and so she leads them to a toy store full of decadent wonders. When she suggests they go into the extravagant store, Sylvia thinks she’s “got as much right as anybody” (113) to enter the toy store, but “somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door” (113). It’s this contradiction between what’s theoretically true and whats realistically true that causes the anger. The kids walk “on tiptoe” (113) in fear of something undefined. In other words, a class and race boundary. They are somewhere society says they don’t belong. A place where a simple toy sailboat is given the same value as a year’s worth of food for all the children present. A place made for people with that kind of resources to spare.

Sugar, one of the children, reaches the crux of the expedition. “I think that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me” (115). Sugar is right. The United States, a self-proclaimed democracy, may be the wealthiest country in the world, but close to half of all Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency. Three individuals hold as much wealth as the lower half of the country, while these same wealthy elite buy our politicians and silence what should be majority rule. If Bambara’s critiques were relevant in 1972, they’re now more true than ever before.


George Saunders is a master of writing stories with authentic details and relevant imagery, and tackling serious topics with a certain nod to humor. A striking example of which is his use of the rat tattoo. “Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised” (59). This small passage actually reflects the dynamic of the story quite well. If we were to assign characters to the different aspects of the tattoo, one could argue the larger rat is Jeff, and the smaller rat is Heather. Jeff knows what Darkenfloxx does to a person, he has had it done to himself before, yet he is willing to allow Heather to be Darkenfloxxed. At the same time, Heather has no idea what her fate is, and she is taken by just as much surprise as the smaller rat. One has to wonder who knifed the larger rat. Fitting within the metaphor, Abnesti would be the obvious culprit, but there’s no imagery to symbolize him. Perhaps the fact that the rats are present, while he is not, represents that through the pain, Jeff and the other victims still have humanity, while Abnesti has none.