Even though slavery ended formally in the United States in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the caste system formally established by Jim Crow “black codes” and informally through the cultural expectation of relations between whites and blacks persisted well into the 20th century. It’s always worth pointing out the fact that people alive right now existed in that time period. It’s further worth pointing out that the very author of this 1993 book, A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines, was born on a plantation in Louisiana, growing up in old slave quarters.
The book takes place in this time period where blacks still must acquiesce to whites in the caste system — still using “yes, sir” and “mister” and never, ever showing how smart they are so as to not make the white man feel inferior — in 1940s Louisiana. Our protagonist, Grant Wiggins, is an educated black teacher, who is tasked with trying to make a “man” out of Jefferson, a young black man convicted of murder and sentenced to death after being an unwitting bystander to a liquor store robbery gone wrong.
Despite his education, Wiggins is constantly made to acquiesce to this system, whether it be the sheriff of the parish or the superintendent of the school district (who can’t even remember Wiggins’ name). On top of the race issues, Wiggins has conflict with his Aunt Lou and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, because they are quite religious and Wiggins is agnostic. Miss Emma not only wants Jefferson to be raised up to a man — his own defense attorney called him a “hog” — but to have his soul saved before he reaches the electric chair. In one memorable instance of this conflict, Miss Emma and Aunt Lou (and the Reverend) are upset at the sin music that Wiggins gives to Jefferson in the form of a radio. Yet, it’s that radio that is what breaks through to Jefferson for the first time and gets him talking, gets him to stop feeling sorry for himself and his impending death. Still, one must ask, but what does God mean in such a world?
And one final layer of intrigue here is the romantic relationship Wiggins has with a divorcee, Vivian, and navigating whether it’s lust or love. Further, that their relationship because of race (I believe she’s a lighter skin color) has complications for both of them. What does love mean in such a world?
For the most part, the book takes place from the point-of-view of Wiggins, who decidedly does not want to deal with the Jefferson issue. In fact, he wants to leave the parish entirely. He’s part of a long cycle of black men, as he discusses, who want to run away, and often, they end up running to their graves, dying young. A cycle, he notes that goes back 300 years and every black man can’t seem to break it, which is why the Miss Emmas and the Aunt Lous of the world are so dang sad. Because they know this cycle. They know their men are trapped in it, no matter how they are raised. How are you supposed to be a man in a world that wants to keep you bowed? How are you supposed to be a man in a world that won’t let you protect your family from the horrors of slavery and injustices? How are you supposed to be a man in a world where injustice — sentencing a black man to death from a jury of all white men and a white judge — is seen as justice? What does being a man mean in such a world?
Those questions are the running themes of the book, again, mostly poured through the eyes of Wiggins, and because of that first-person point-of-view, I thought Gaines’ writing style really sings off the page. It’s believable and authentic, which makes sense given his own real life backstory. And Jefferson’s transformation from someone staring at the wall, not seeing the wall, thinking himself to be that hog, to becoming a man who is ready to die like a man, was well-earned. We sat there in that tiny, pathetic jail cell with Wiggins and Jefferson, agonizing page after page, wanting him to see a different kind of light and he wouldn’t. Until he did.
“And that’s all we are Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood. until we – each of us, individually- decide to become something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood, and those out there are no better. But you can be better.”– Wiggins to Jefferson in one of the best monologues of the book.
Toward the end of the novel, however, we switch to the perspective of Jefferson himself, who is writing in his diary with his barely literary screed and it’s heartbreaking. He’s become the man Miss Emma wants him to be and now he’s about to die. We also then get the perspective of the residents of the parish when they realize the electric chair has arrived for the execution day, which itself is an event. The parish seems to come to a standstill in the hours in which Jefferson is killed.
First, I have to say, I love me a great title and, A Lesson Before Dying is a great title. It’s one of those titles that just carries an inherent gravitas. In one sense, the lesson before dying is rather obvious: A lesson for Jefferson before he’s put to death. However, it’s also a lesson — if anything, more of a lesson — for Wiggins in finding his own place in the world. It’s not only about helping Jefferson to stand like a man, but for Wiggins to stand like a man as well.
Secondly, as Wiggins’ own teacher, a cynical old man who died thinking the system of Jim Crow would grind you down into the black person the white man thought you were, Matthew Antonine, said, there are, nonetheless, some good white people and to never forget that. We get that in the case of one white deputy jailer, Paul, who seems so moved by everything he’s seen, that he seems like he could genuinely become a friend and ally of Wiggins’. In other words, even though this is the 1940s and we are still a long way off from the 1960s, the seeds are here.
Overall, I thought this was a gut-wrenching, frustrating read on the level of the racism, particularly the informal ones in which it persisted, and because of how inhumane and incoherent the death penalty is (particularly combined with the religious aspect; in a bit of, uh, gallows humor, the white people wanted the execution date moved so it didn’t coincide too awkwardly with Easter), but also, I thought it was uplifting without being overly sentimental and sappy. The fact of Wiggins’ own reluctance and internal struggles, and that the book was through that perspective for the most part, made for a compelling read on both sides of that ugly coin.
If you’re looking for a book that is both something likely to be taught in a classroom, but is still nonetheless accessible, I highly recommend this book.