A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
Published: 1993 by Vintage Contemporaries
I don’t know how many more books – fiction or non-fiction – I will need to read to even attempt to understand what black people were forced to endure in the U.S. even as recently as 50 years ago. I feel it’s condescending for me to wish I could apologize to every black person I see, even though I had no part in their treatment; but when I read something like A Lesson Before Dying, it is all I can think about doing.
Set in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s/early 1950s, A Lesson Before Dying is a novel about readying Jefferson, a young black man, for execution for a crime in which he was an unfortunate bystander. During his trial (which sadly was probably a mere formality in that time and in that place), his attorney, with what to him probably seemed the best of intentions, told the jury that “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this”. This prompted Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to ask Grant Wiggins, a black schoolteacher in the community, to visit Jefferson in prison in the time he has left, because “I don’t want them to kill no hog, I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet”.
Though unsure of what he is supposed to do, Grant reluctantly agrees and visits Jefferson in prison. Neither man is sure of each other nor of their reasons for being forced together, and at the beginning their meetings are not much more than sitting in the same cell. But though Grant doesn’t want to visit, he begins to feel he has to, and treat Jefferson like the man he was never allowed to be.
Again, this novel was very eye-opening to me as someone who is white and who likes to think she is color-blind to everyone around her. My head knows that these things went on, but my heart just cannot accept it. Jefferson’s fate is horribly tragic and sad, but Grant’s is tragic in its own way; he is a black man who is educated but who still can’t seem to break free from the barrier his skin color imposes. At the same time, I am always amazed at reading about the strong communities built around black people — it is another condescending thought on my part but to me it seems that even when the world at large treated them horribly at least they had the support of each other.
My book club discussed this at our meeting last week and we were all in agreement that it was a powerful book that is likely to become a classic. Had it not been one of our discussion books, it is highly likely I would never have picked it up, so once again I am grateful for being in such a great group that selects such diverse books.