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[734] A Lesson Before Dying – Earnest J. Gaines


” How do people come up with a date and a time to take the life from another man? Who made them God? . . . Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice? ” (Ch.20, p.157)

A Lesson Before Dying is about two black men, one a teacher, the other a death row inmate, who struggle to live, and to die, with dignity. A primary school teacher, Grant Wiggins, narrates the story of Jefferson, who has been found guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that “I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” Hog. The world lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his “nannan” (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, with dignity and respect, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help.

The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God? (Ch.20, p.158)

Grant has his own problems: stuck teaching in a plantation school on the white man’s terms; visiting Jefferson in jail would just mean more kowtowing. Then his struggle overcoming racial divide is equally troublesome. His crossing the color line to love a divorced Creole woman, Vivian Baptiste. She becomes yet another reason why Grant, an atheist, must save Jefferson’s dignity if not save him from execution.

The book steers clear of being sentimental despite the very sensitive subject matter. Grant Wiggins narrates in a very muted voice. Despite Jefferson’s initial bitter resignation to his execution, which lends credence to the lesson of how Jim Crow would break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to “the nigger you were born to be,” Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish. The most touching, and also the most significant message is that Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits. The entire novel lambastes a society steeped in injustice. Jefferson’s death not only liberates him, it also defies the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just or murder, but of being black-skinned. For a book published relatively in the present, in 1993, Gaines really retains and recreates that suffocating, racially-tense atmosphere of the post-World War Two South.

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]